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Peter Ackroyd on the Thames

"The Thames has a length of 214 miles, and is navigable for 191 miles. It is the longest river in England but not in Britain, where the Severn is longer by approximately five miles. Nevertheless, it must be the shortest river in the world to acquire such a famous history. It runs along the borders of nine English counties, acting both as a boundary and as a defence. There are 134 bridges along the length of the Thames, and approximately twenty large tributaries still flow into the main current."

"But there are elements of strangeness and mystery about the Thames that are not as susceptible to easy explanation. The name itself is ancient. 'Thames' predates the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tongues. It comes from some Stone Age language that has now perished, from the primordial tribes of the Mesolithic or Neolithic who during their wanderings over the Earth shared a common language, a reminder of the fact that the river has been flowing ever since the existence of humankind. The word may derive from the Sanskrit term for 'dark' and it has often been known as the dark river. This may indeed signify darkness in the sense of Holy or sacred fearfulness."

"Yet from the earliest settlement of its banks, the Thames has been the focus of life, industry and commerce for the towns and cities, which cling to its banks. Londoners have always had a complex relationship with the river: it is a guardian but also an oppressive presence, a companion but also a rival. It can be brutal. It can be dangerous."

"People have always travelled and worked upon the waters of the 'highway of the city' as well as along its banks, their lives dictated by the tides and moods of the Thames as much as by activity in the city itself. The wharfs, jetties and piers, which protrude into the river from the land, have always been the points at which these two worlds connect or collide. They are the means of access to the water and to the land, gates from one to the other."

"River traffic was once central to the life of London but as the life of city grew ever more remote from the Thames, human activity all but left the river. The primal energy of the river has been dissipated to the extent that the modern Londoner has now no contact with what was once the source and centre of the city's being."

Peter Ackroyd 2008

Peter Ackroyd's Readings

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